News & Events

Celebrate Spring: Visit Port Townsend’s Rare Prairie Treasure

Author: Stephanie Wiegand | 05/16/18

Today, less than 5 percent of Western Washington’s original prairies remain. A great place to see some for yourself is at the Kah Tai Prairie Preserve in Port Townsend. Photo by Caitlin Battersby

Nestled on the grounds of the Port Townsend Golf Club is a small plot of wildflowers that have lived there for many thousands of years. A remnant of the prairies that once covered the Kah Tai Valley — from Kah Tai Lagoon to Chinese Gardens — this 1.2-acre preserve is a direct link to the distant past.

Some Prairie History

Imagine: 16,000 years ago, the Olympic Peninsula lay under 3,000 feet of glacial ice. Then, as temperatures rose, the glaciers began to retreat, leaving trails of crushed rock in their wake. Beautiful, drought-resistant wildflowers and grasses emerged on these sandy soils and thrived during a warm, dry period that lasted until 5,000 years ago. The weather gradually became cooler and wetter, and the balance tipped in favor of forests. Where prairies had once thrived untended, shrubs and trees began invading these open spaces­ and overrunning the sun-loving grasses and wildflowers… Unless humans intervened.

Blue Camas

Blue camas, pictured here amid “spring gold” lomatium, was an important traditional food staple for Native people of the Pacific Northwest. Camas bulbs were more widely traded than any food other than dried salmon. Photo by Katherine Darrow

The Native tribes who inhabited this land for millennia needed the prairies. They were crucial food sources, supplying edible roots like blue camas bulbs and rich grasses that attracted elk and deer. Local tribes intentionally cultivated and maintained their prairie “gardens.” They saved and replanted small bulbs as seed stock, and only harvested each area every few years to give the plants time to regenerate.

More critically, Native people managed the prairies by deliberately burning them every one to three years to keep them clear and open. When fire sweeps through a prairie, it destroys invading shrubs and evergreen trees. Prairie plants are adapted to survive fires, as they can regenerate from the roots.

When settlers came to our area, they were attracted to the open prairies. First generation resident James McCurdy described the Kah Tai Valley as having “the appearance of a beautiful park. Myriads of wild flowers transformed the valley floor into a many-hued carpet.” Preferring open spaces to shady forests, pioneers quickly claimed prairieland for farming and home-sites. Native tribes were displaced and discouraged from burning the land, and local prairies were largely lost—overtaken by forests, farming and development. Today, less than 5% of Western Washington’s original prairies remain.

Port Townsend’s Kah Tai Prairie Preserve

Fred Weinmann (above) of the Washington Native Plant Society is one in a long line of people who have cared for the patch of land that is now Kah Tai Prairie Preserve, the last remnant of the prairie that once stretched from Kah Tai Lagoon to Chinese Gardens.

In Port Townsend, one remnant escaped this fate and survived, undetected, until a self described “totally amateur” naturalist saw something unusual. In 1986, Gerry Bergstrom noticed that a “rough” at the golf course contained several very surprising plants. She called in some experts, and they realized they were seeing the last remnant of Port Townsend’s original prairie. Soon the Washington Native Plant Society (WNPS) Olympic chapter got involved and convinced the city to protect this local treasure. WNPS members like Dixie Llewellyn and Ann and Fred Weinmann have cared for the Kah Tai Prairie Preserve ever since.

According to Fred, caring for the prairie is a well honored tradition. “There’s no such thing as a prairie in our area that wasn’t managed by humans,” he said. “Without people, trees would take over. Western Washington grows trees everywhere.”

The preserve is open to the public. Visitors can use the Port Townsend Golf Club parking lot. Ann recommends parking near the kiosk (pictured above), examining the plants illustrated on the large kiosk sign, and then looking over the prairie to see what blooms you can find. While the blue camas will have finished blooming, death camas, native buttercup, and larkspur should still be on display through of the end of May.

Fred explained that the best way to care for the prairie is to let it burn. Otherwise, the prairie plants soon use up the nutrients in the soil and flowers get less abundant. “If you burn in the fall, the next spring there’s still not so much in bloom because they’re relying on nutrients already stored in the bulb. Then the following spring there’s a big bloom because they have access to those nutrients from the burn all through the growing season,” he said. In 2000 and 2008, there were controlled burns at Kah Tai Prairie that destroyed invasive weeds and resulted in prolific blooms. “Open burning in cities is illegal, so you need to get special permits. We might find a way to get it done again. It would be nice to burn again,” he said. Following millennia of tradition on this land, preserving our last piece of prairie will continue to require human care.

“There’s no such thing as a prairie in our area that wasn’t managed by humans. Without people, trees would take over. Western Washington grows trees everywhere.”

– Fred Weinmann